Russia: where activist journalism can get you killed

Kremlin

For Isi Leibler, leaving the country was the only alternative

By Vlad Egorov

Despite the presence of heavily armed airport security, Isi Leibler felt the sense of danger lift when she returned to Israel in 2007. The Tel Aviv native had been working as a journalist in Russia for seven years, covering domestic and international politics during Vladimir Putin’s time in office. “It was like something from a movie, almost unbelievable,’’ Leibler recalls. “I was always feeling like I was being followed, many times I even saw people taking pictures of me.’’ After receiving threats via anonymous mail demanding that she stop writing critically about Putin’s regime, Leibler decided to move back to her home country.

Isi Leibler, Journalist for The Jerusalem Post. Photo courtesy The Jerusalem Post

She is now a journalist for the Jerusalem Post. Putin’s reign of terror characterized, in part, by the coercion and murder of journalists has plagued the country since his first election in March 2000. That year, dozens of journalists were murdered in Russia. Sergei Ivanov, the owner of a then-famous independent media publication, was shot five times in the head and chest in front of his apartment building. Igor Domnikov, a journalist known for his anti-Putin criticism, had his skull crushed with a hammer in broad daylight, and the list goes on—the killers were never found.

At first, Leibler was not deterred. Previously on the staff of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, she was hired at Novaya Gazeta, the same newspaper Domnikov worked for when he was murdered. She quickly assumed the same characteristics as Dominkov, viciously criticizing the anti-democratic actions of the President.

She actively covered the Chechen war which left more than 20,000 people dead from 1999 to 2009, and in which Vladimir Putin was accused of war crimes such as torture and killing civilians. ‘’I believe that it is my job as a journalist to expose these things,’’ she says. “Putin was sending kids to this war, 18-year-olds who can’t refuse. Not to mention killing children and civilians in Chechnya and Dagestan.”

The period from 1990 to 2009 during which the second Chechen War took place was the deadliest era for Russia’s journalists in modern history. More than 10 journalists a month were killed in contract killings in Europe, or kidnapped and murdered in Chechnya.

Isi Lieblier moved back to Israel after receiving anonymous mail demanding that she stop writing critically about Putin’s regime Photo courtesy The Jerusalem Post

Leibler recalls her editor heavily editing her stories in order to give them a more neutral tone and soon enough, she understood why. “At first it was just friendly emails from anonymous domains with hidden VPNs telling me to open my coverage of other viewpoints,’’ she says. “But soon enough, I started getting real threats and I started to feel in danger.’’ In June of 2007, Leibler received a package in the mail with no return address, containing a picture taken a week before as she walked home from a grocery store in Moscow, a copy of one of her articles denouncing the Chechen War, and a bullet. “It was a clear sign for me that I had to leave,’’ she recalls. “It was much better for me to just leave the country than to compromise my values.’’

Though these kinds of violations to the press freedom are outrageous from a Western perspective, Russians might not share the same values, experts say. “The situation is Russia regarding free press is hard to judge,’’ says Christopher Forrest, a political science professor at Concordia University. “The mentality of the people is very different; they will never take a stand against it. In the battle of the state and free press, the people will always side with the state.’’ In fact, according to a 2017 national poll, 81 per cent of Russians believed that censoring the media was an ‘’essential part’’ to a harmonious and stable society.

Pavel Lokbov, a journalist for Channel Rain, an independent anti-Putin publication based in Latvia, believes that the Russian people are coerced into following Putin through the use of powerful military images promoting fear and state supremacy. ‘’Every single TV station, every newspaper,

Pavel Lokbov, journalist for Channel Rain Photo courtesy Alexander Lepeshkin

it is always the same narrative,’’ he explains. “Every day we hear about some new military invention, a new submarine, a new missile. It’s propaganda through fear, so of course the people will be drawn to support the power of the state.’’ According to a study that Channel Rain conducted analyzing the most popular Russian media outlets, TV programs and news issues cover a military subject in 87 per cent of releases.

The selective reporting prevalent in Russia’s popular publications is also a major problem according to Lokbov. He refers to the recent 2018 elections, where Putin was elected with a 99 per cent majority in the region of Chechnya, a result he believes either due to election rigging or fear.  No mainstream Russian channels, such as Russia Today or Channel One have covered this result. “They were at war just a few years ago, families lost their children, this result can’t be real.’’ he says. “But nobody in Russia is covering this, because it would raise lots of questions.’’ Today, Lokbov lives safely in Latvia, away from the motherland; though he has never received threats, he says that he would never risk working in Russia for fear of violent retribution from the government. Liebler lives in Jerusalem with her husband and daughter.

The complexity of Russia’s political system is clearly taking a toll on the freedom of press in the country. In 2009, a group of media professionals created the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-profit organization in Russia tackling the problem. However journalists are still dying: In September of 2017 the body of journalist Andrey Ruskov was found in a river after he had been murdered. Once again, the people responsible were never found. “Censorship is one thing,’’ Forrest says, “but the killing of journalists, if that’s really what’s going on, that’s another level.’’